A brief dispatch from Rotterdam [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

A post on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

A brief dispatch from Rotterdam

Posted By on 01.28.07 at 04:32 PM

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I’m posting this from a public, stand-up facility at the Rotterdam film festival, which means I have to keep this brief. I’ve seen only one feature so far that I’ve cared for very much — a documentary called Murch by Edie and David Ichioka, about film editor Walter Murch (whom I once had the pleasure of working with on a re-edited version of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil). The film offers a fascinating glimpse of some of the tricks of Murch’s trade, presented with wit and lucidity. Edie Ichioka is a former assistant of Murch’s, and she and her husband clearly knew the right sort of questions to get him started.

Bringing Darkness to Light (2006).01

1908

Otherwise, I’ve been mainly seeing things that I don’t last all the way through. (Walking out of films is something of a luxury for me, since for obvious professional reasons I can’t do this when I’m reviewing in Chicago.) The main exceptions have been a couple of interesting experimental shorts, both of which find novel ways of combining animation with live action — called, respectively, Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light and Regarding the Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp) — and Summer Palace, a sort of dirge about a female college student in Beijing before, during, and after the Tiananmen Square events, by Lou Ye, the director of Suzhou River, which I stayed to the end of mainly because of jetlag and inertia. This film does have the merit of revealing, through an unaccustomed amount of sex and nudity for a mainland Chinese film, how banal a Chinese softcore soap opera can be, even one that’s been banned.

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The Future is Here

Commissioned by BFI Publishing and published in the November 2014 Sight and Sound. This version is slightly tweaked. — J.R.

These-are-the-damned2

 

In an amusing, satisfying, and highly persuasive rant in Time Out in 1977, J.G. Ballard took on the cultural phenomenon of  Star Wars (1977), including some of its historical and ideological consequences. Noting that “two hours of Star Wars must be one of the most efficient means of weaning your preteen child from any fear of, or sensitivity towards, the death of others”, he also reflected on the overall impact of George Lucas’s blockbuster on science-fiction movies:

“The most popular form of s-f — space fiction –- has been the least successful of all cinematically, until 2001 and Star Wars, for the obvious reason that the special effects available were hopelessly inadequate. Surprisingly, s-f is one of the most literary forms of all fiction, and the best s-f films — Them!, Dr. Cyclops, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alphaville, Last Year at Marienbad (not a capricious choice, its themes are time, space and identity, s-f’s triple pillars), Dr. Strangelove, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Barbarella, and Solaris — and the brave failures, such as The Thing, Seconds, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, have all made use of comparatively modest special effects and relied on strongly imaginative ideas, and on ingenuity, wit, and fantasy.… Read more »

Adolescent Sex in Oberhausen [Chicago Reader blog post, 2007]

A post on the Chicago Reader‘s blog, Bleader. — J.R.

Adolescent sex in Oberhausen

Posted By on 05.10.07 at 08:19 PM

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I’ve just returned from the 53rd International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany, where I was invited to serve on the jury of FIPRESCI, the international film critics organization. My work, apart from participating in a panel about the privatization of film experience, consisted of seeing the 64 short films in the international competition and, along with two other jurors (Oliver Baumgarten from Cologne and Alexis Tioseco from Manila), awarding one of them a prize. We picked Amit Dutta’s 22-minute Kramasha from India—a dazzling, virtuoso piece of mise en scene in 35-millimeter, full of uncanny imagery about the way the narrator imagines the past of his village and his family.

The Festival had 14 prizes in all, gave a total of 30,000 Euros to many of the winning filmmakers, and concluded with a ceremony that lasted well over two and a half hours. Part of what made the event interesting was the same default position that sustained me through the 64 shorts I saw: the notion that at a festival as genuinely international as this one, a certain education was possible, however limited, in how people in other parts of the world were living and thinking — all of which provides a potential context for better understanding some of the choices involved, conscious or otherwise, in how Americans live and think.

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Home movie of homelessness (Review of REMINISCENCES OF A JOURNEY TO LITHUANIA)

One of my first published reviews, which appeared in the November 2, 1972 issue of The Village Voice, this was commissioned by Andrew Sarris, bless him. I was always grateful for this opportunity to write about a film that I love, and that I continue to cherish. — J.R.

Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, a film dedicated “to all the displaced people in the world,” has itself become the object of some displacement. Screened jointly with Adolfas Mekas and Pola Chapelle’s Going Home at the New York Film Festival, defined in the program as a non-narrative film and by its author as a home movie, it has become a casual victim of “convenient” programing and somewhat deceptive labels. Whatever “non-narrative” and “home movie” mean — and I think the latter describes Going Home pretty accurately — they are less than helpful in describing the achievement of what must be called Jonas Mekas’s testament. If they must be understood, let it be understood that Reminiscences is a home movie about homelessness, a non-narrative film with one of the most beautifully constructed and articulated narrative lines in autobiographical cinema.

Going Home, a rambling collection of travel photos and family poses, resembles the jazzy surfaces of Hallelujah the Hills, joke titles and all, and registers not unlike a boastful list of possessions (the secret metaphysic behind every family album): this is my garden, my Moscow, my family, my Lithuania.… Read more »

Buried Clues (LA PROMESSE)

From the Chicago Reader (August 22, 1997). — J.R.

La promesse

Rating *** A must see

Directed and written by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

With Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Assita Ouedraogo, Frederic Bodson, Rasmane Ouedraogo, and Hachemi Haddad.

I’d never heard of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne before I saw La promesse (1996), an important and highly involving movie playing at the Music Box this week. But given that they’re regional filmmakers working in an unfashionable country, this isn’t surprising. Based in Liege — a city in French-speaking western Belgium — the two brothers, both in their mid-40s, started out in the 70s as assistants to Belgian director and playwright Armand Gatti. They then made leftist videos about local urban and labor issues, followed by documentary films for TV about local anti-Nazi resistance, local workers’ struggles in the 60s, and a history of Polish immigration between the 30s and early 80s. In 1986 they turned to fiction, filming a play called Falsch, and their film made the rounds of a few international festivals. In 1991 they did a more experimental feature, Je pense à vous (“I’m Thinking of You”), cowritten by the distinguished New Wave screenwriter Jean Gruault, that apparently sank without a trace after playing at a few French festivals and being slaughtered by the Belgian press.… Read more »

From Iran With Love

From the Chicago Reader (September 29, 1995). — J.R.

Homework

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Through the Olive Trees

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Abbas Kiarostami

With Hossein Rezai, Tahereh Ladanian, Mohamad Ali Keshavarz, Farhad Kheradmand, and Zarifeh Shiva.

At the Toronto film festival earlier this month Canadian filmmaker Clement Vigo recalled the memorable response of Winston Churchill to pressure to cut state arts funding during World War II: “If we cut funding for the arts and culture, then what are we fighting for?” It’s a question I’ve been pondering ever since.

A month earlier, while I was in the middle of looking at close to 100 films as part of the New York film festival’s selection committee, I had the rare privilege of being able to fly for a weekend to still another festival, in Locarno, Switzerland, to serve on a panel devoted to Godard’s Histoire(s) de cinéma. Locarno had two ambitious sidebars this year — one devoted to Godard’s video series, the other to Iranian women filmmakers and the first virtually complete retrospective of work by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami ever held anywhere, including an exhibition of his color photographs of landscapes and two very beautiful paintings.… Read more »

The Lure of Crime: Feuillade’s FANTOMAS Films

Commissioned and published by Fandor in September 2010. — J.R.

Teaching silent film in the mid-1980s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was astonished to discover I was the first teacher there who had ever shown a film by Louis Feuillade. Sadly, there was a good reason: at that time, only one Feuillade film was in distribution in the U.S. — Juve contre Fantômas (Juve vs. Fantômas) — and few if any of my teaching colleagues had ever seen it.

My own introduction to Feuillade, one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences in my life, was attending, on April 3, 1969, a 35-millimeter projection of all seven hours of his 1918 crime serial, Tih Minh, at the Museum of Modern Art -– along with Susan Sontag, Annette Michelson, and other enrapt friends and acquaintances. Part of the shock of that experience was discovering that even though Feuillade was a contemporary of D.W. Griffith — born two years earlier, in 1873 — he seemed to belong to a different century. While Griffith reeks of Victorian morality and nostalgia for the mid-19th century, Feuillade looks forward to the global paranoia, conspiratorial intrigues, and technological fantasies of the 20th century and beyond.

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Don’t Worry, Be Unhappy [SEVEN]

From the October 6, 1995 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

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Seven

*** (A must-see)

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker

With Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree, R. Lee Ermey, John McGinley, Julie Araskog, Mark Boone Junior, and Kevin Spacey.

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Since when have designer vomit, mannerist rot, and other chic signifiers of gloom, doom, and decline become such comforting mainstays of movies? I’m thinking not only about Hollywood but about Western cinema generally. What brings on all the driving, dirty rain in Satantango (Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black comedy, which showed at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival) as well as in Seven, a stylish and affecting (albeit gory) metaphysical serial-killer movie? The facile solution would be to trace the gloom back to Blade Runner, film noir, maybe even to Prague school surrealism, though this would omit the Calvinist/expressionist vision of urban filth and the post-Vietnam psychopathology of Taxi Driver. In point of fact, it’s much more important to figure out the reasons for the strange allure of this grim sensibility than to worry pedantically about where it came from.

I’d ascribe at least part of this taste to the current inability to believe in or try to effect political change — a form of paralysis that in America is related to an incapacity to accept that we’re no longer number one.… Read more »

Sound and Vision (Films by Marguerite Duras)

From the September 15, 1995 issue of Chicago Reader. —J.R.

Films by Marguerite Duras

It’s surely indicative of the scarcity of Marguerite Duras movies that even a dedicated fan like me has managed to see only seven of them — and for one of those I had to drive 100 miles, from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles. No Duras film has been distributed in the United States for years, and in preparing this article I wasn’t even able to obtain a complete filmography; my own provisional list includes 20 titles, stretching from La musica in 1966 to Les enfants in 1982.

If one extends this list by adding adaptations (by herself and others) of Duras literary works, the scripts she wrote for other directors, and two films by Benoit Jacquot revolving around Duras, the figure is 31 films, most of them features. So it’s no small achievement that Facets Multimedia (which, thanks to the efforts of Charles Coleman, has recently featured such adventurous fare as Manoel de Oliveira’s Valley of Abraham and an exhaustive Nanni Moretti retrospective) will be showing a dozen films from this list over the next couple of weeks, most of them in brand-new prints and most of them four to six times.… Read more »

Sexism in the French New Wave

From Film Quarterly (Spring 2009). — J.R.

 

One way of looking back at the sense of male privilege underlying much of the French New Wave would be to consider Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) as a belated commentary on it. I’ve long regarded that masterpiece as a late-blooming, final flowering of the New Wave, especially for its referentiality in relation to cinephilia and film criticism. For one thing, it glories in the kind of compulsive doubling of shots and characters that François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette himself all discovered in Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. But it also puts a kind of stopper on the New Wave in the way it both underlines and responds to that movement’s sexism through the services of its four lead actresses, all of whom collaborated on its script: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, and Marie-France Pisier. Every male character, both in the story proper and in the film-with-in-the-film, is viewed as absurd, both as a romantic fop and as a narcissist who ultimately elicits the heroines’ scorn and ridicule: the patriarch (Barbet Schroeder) in the Phantom Ladies over Paris segments, playing his two phantom ladies (Ogier and Pisier) off against one another; and, in the story proper, Julie’s small-town suitor (Philippe Clévenot), Céline’s boss (Jean Douchet), and various male customers at the cabaret.Read more »

Orson Welles in the U.S.: An Exchange with Bill Krohn in Three Letters (Part 3)

Written originally for Trafic no. 12 (Fall 1994), where it appeared in French translation, translated by Bernard Eisenschitz; all three letters first appeared in English in Persistence of Vision No,. 11, 1995. — J.R.

Don Quichotte - Francisco Reiguera

 

DQ-autograveyard

 

June 13, 1994

Dear Bill,

It’s good to have all your multifaceted thoughts about It’s All True, which makes your letter worth the long wait. I especially value what you have to say regarding the political implications of the film in the 1940s as well as the 1990s, because it seems that those implications have mainly eluded critics in both decades. As you well know, it wasn’t until Robert Stam published “Orson Welles, Brazil, and the Power of Blackness” in the seventh issue of Persistence of Vision (1989), with corroborating essays by both Catherine and Susan Ryan, that it finally became clear, forty-odd years after the event, that part of what was rattling so many studio executives and Brazilian government officials alike about Welles’s behavior in Rio was his particular interest in blacks. Maybe you’re right that he wasn’t a radical, but if It’s All True had been completed  and released in the early 1940s, it still might have offered a radical precedent: three Latin American stories focusing on non-white heroes.… Read more »

Orson Welles in the U.S.: An Exchange with Bill Krohn in Three Letters (Part 2)

Written originally for Trafic no. 12 (Fall 1994), where it appeared in French translation, translated by Bernard Eisenschitz; all three letters first appeared in English in Persistence of Vision No,. 11, 1995. — J.R.

IAL-OW

IAT-OW on boat

June 7, 1994

Dear Jonathan,

Sorry to have been so long replying. As you say, much has happened since you wrote your letter. We both started out years ago in a series of polemical articles to correct received ideas of Welles, and we seem to be making progress. This Is Orson Welles and It’s All True will be more  widely read and seen than those articles ever were. Already Richard Combs, writing about f for fake in the January–February 1994 Film Comment, acknowledges the thesis of Welles the independent filmmaker advanced by you in “The Invisible Orson Welles” as a corrective to the idea of Welles the great failure, then proceeds to propose a new theory of the work, with failure of another kind inscribed in it from the start.  That article would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when what might be called the vulgar theory of failure was still dominant.

The work on the Welles legacy is going well: Oja is set to co-direct a documentary that will include several of the important fragments; The Deep and The Other Side of the Wind may be finished in the next couple of years, and hope springs eternal where The Merchant of Venice is concerned.… Read more »

Orson Welles in the U.S.: An Exchange with Bill Krohn in Three Letters (Part 1)

Written originally for Trafic no. 12 (Fall 1994), where it appeared in French translation, translated by Bernard Eisenschitz; all three letters first appeared in English in Persistence of Vision No,. 11, 1995. The version here, including my introduction, comes from Discovering Orson Welles. – J.R.

 

discovering-orson-welles

This chapter -— the longest in my 2007 book Discovering Orson Welles, and in some ways my favorite -— was originally written for the French quarterly Trafic, and in fact was the first thing I ever wrote specifically for that magazine. The late Serge Daney (1942–1994) —- whom I’d known since his stint as editor of Cahiers du cinéma, when he’d gotten me to serve briefly as its New York correspondent (after Bill Krohn had shifted from that post to the same magazine’s Los Angeles correspondent) -— died of AIDS not longer after launching Trafic, and by my own choice, my first contribution, a memoir about working for Jacques Tati (see “The Death of Hulot” in my collection Placing Movies), was something I’d already written for and published in Sight and Sound. My second contribution was my brief introduction to Orson Welles’s “Memo to Universal”, an “outtake” from This Is Orson Welles that had been accepted by Serge’s coeditors (Raymond Bellour, Jean-Claude Biette, Sylvie Pierre, and Patrice Rollet) during Serge’s illness.Read more »

Are We Having Fun Yet?

From the Chicago Reader (June 7, 1996). — J.R.

Mission: Impossible

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Brian De Palma

Written by David Koepp, Steven Zaillian, and Robert Towne

With Tom Cruise, Jon Voight, Henry Czerny, Emmanuelle Beart, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Vanessa Redgrave.

The Phantom

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Simon Wincer

Written by Jeffrey Boam

With Billy Zane, Kristy Swanson, Treat Williams, Catherine Zeta Jones, James Remar, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

My Favorite Season

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Andre Téchiné

Written by Téchiné and Pascal Bonitzer

With Catherine Deneuve, Daniel Auteuil, Marthe Villalonga, Jean-Pierre Bouvier, Chiara Mastroianni, Carmen Chaplin, Anthony Prada, and Michèle Moretti.

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I think that one never grows up emotionally. We grow up physically, intellectually, socially, and even morally but never emotionally. Recognition of this fact can be either terrifying or deeply moving. Everyone handles it in their own way. — Andre Téchiné

The principal pleasure of the Cannes festival for me was a two-week vacation from the “fun” of American movies. Maybe this fun — which points to our inability to grow up emotionally — would seem less oppressive if it didn’t also inform the American experience of news, politics, fast food, sports, economics, education, religion, and leisure in general; this kind of fun is less an escape than an enforced activity, a veritable civic duty.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Misnomers and Displacements (my 7th column)

From Cinema Scope #20 (Autumn 2004). — J.R.

One of the most flagrant lacks in most jazz films is the spectacle of musicians listening to each another. Back in the early 60s, when I was frequenting a lot of downtown Manhattan jazz clubs, some of my biggest thrills came from visiting spots where many of the best and most attentive listeners were those on the bandstand —- not only the classic John Coltrane Quartet at the now defunct Half Note, where McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and the serene leader were all meditating on one another’s solos in a kind of trance, but Lennie Tristano at the same club taping his own sets with Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz and then playing them back in the wee hours, while he sat alone at the bar. Sitting a few seats away from him one night, I felt I was getting an education in listening by observing this prodigious blind pianist’s highly physical responses, both positive and negative, to his own solos.

No less precious was the opportunity to attend the Jazz Gallery on St. Mark’s Place one weeknight when Miles Davis, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, J.J. Johnson, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones were all holding forth in alternation with Teddy Wilson’s trio for (I kid you not) the price of a one-dollar admission, at least for students.… Read more »